The Great Basin basically straddles the line between Nevada and Utah. The desert landscape is nothing like Tatooine or Jakku. In fact, the Great Basin National Park has a very fragile ecosystem, which teems with life. Every drop of water is almost like a drop of gold, and every moment of shade is like a gift from above. The one-of-a-kind bristlecone pines, which may be the oldest nonclonal life forms on Earth, are just one example. Rather scrubby trees like this one are common in the lowlands. Thick carpets of fir, pine, and other tall trees dominate the higher elevations. There is more life in the midst of all this life. Rabbits, squirrels, and other small mammals live in the lowlands. In the mountains, visitors often catch glimpses of bobcats, cougars, and other larger predatory animals. Elk and mule deer are in the mix as well.
Ancient glaciers and volcanoes made the area what it is today. Those huge glaciers melted at the end of the Ice Age, so much of this area was once a giant sea bed. Oh, and by “ancient,” we mean caves that have been dated back as many as 550 million years.
An RV is definitely the best way to experience Great Basin National Park. Think of it as a mobile hotel room, so a comfortable spot is always only a few steps away. There are a variety of RV parks to enjoy. Some are large, where you can connect with RVers from other parts of the country. Others are smaller, so you can experience the desert isolation that has attracted so many people to this area for so many years.
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RV Rentals in Great Basin National Park
Transportation in Great Basin National Park
Great Basin National Park is one of the most accessible places in the National Park system. Even novice RVers should have no problem reaching their destination, as the approaching roads are quite wide in all directions. Moreover, driving conditions are usually quite good in the dry desert air.
Many people approach the Park from the east or the west. Take either U.S. Highway 6 or U.S. 50. Then, go south on Nevada State Highway 487 to Baker. Finally, follow Highway 488 about five miles to the west. Other people fly to either Salt Lake City or Las Vegas where they rent RVs and drive the few hours to the Park. Utah S.H. 21 becomes Nevada S.H. 487 when you cross the border. If you’re coming from Nevada, take U.S. 93 north and then jump over to Nevada S.H. 487 at the U.S. 6/50/93 interchange.
In the “Basin” portion of GBNP, there is almost always plenty of parking. The desert floor is a little rocky at times, but it’s also very open and flat. Parking is more limited in higher elevations, so plan ahead.
There is no public transportation to or inside Great Basin National Park.
Campgrounds and parking in Great Basin National Park
Campsites in Great Basin National Park
A small city right on the Nevada-Utah state line, West Wendover, NV is the closest base to the Bonneville Salt Flats where land-speed records are made. Whether you're on the way to Salt Lake City or staying in to see the races or hike Pilot Peak, bring your rig (up to 80') to Wendover KOA and find a tree-lined, full hookup spot with up to 50-amp service, or a water/electric site with up to 20/30-amp service. The campground has cable TV, Wi-Fi, propane, firewood, and pool. They have a tour shuttle, too. Pets are allowed.
Surrounded by nature, Ely, NV is chock full of connections to the past. Bring your rig to the Ely KOA right on US-93, and be within an hour's drive to the Great Basin National Park, Lehman Caves, and railway museum or Old Ely's railroad facility. Private lawns, deluxe patio sites and LP gas grills await rigs up to 90 feet at the many full hookup sites with up to 50-amp service. Water and electric sites are available for smaller rigs. On-site propane, firewood and a Kamping Kitchen make cooking more convenient. Stay connected with Wi-Fi and cable TV. Pets are welcome.
Baker Creek Campground
Gravel-top Baker Creek Road is one of the better-maintained side roads in the Park. Many guests like it because it is not as remote as some sites and not as busy as other ones. There is usually plenty of clean water and the restroom facilities are well-maintained. This thirty-eight site campground is open from May through October.
Grey Cliffs Campground
This campground is not as chilly as some of the other upper-elevation campsites. There is no running water here, but the Lehman Caves Visitors’ Center and Baker Creek Campground are both less than two miles away. There are sixteen sites, two of which are excellent for groups.
Wheeler Peak Campground
This site is a little more remote and is open from June through October. This part of Wheeler Park Scenic Drive is rather narrow and winding, so RVs longer than 24 feet are usually discouraged. The campground has thirty-seven campsites.
Lehman Creek Campground
Lower Lehman is about 2.5 miles from the visitors’ center. It has eleven campsites, many of which are pull-through sites. Upper Lehman, which is about a mile further down Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive, has twenty-four campsites. There are shower facilities between the two camps. Each one backs up to Lehman Creek, with its hiking trails and waterfalls. These sites are open from April through October.
Strawberry Creek Campground
This campground is on the northern edge of the Park. It’s quite nice and secluded. However, it often closes when there are wildfires or other ecological events in the area. So, check with the rangers before you head out there.
Snake Creek Campground
This campground has twelve sites. That number includes three sites for group camping. There is no running water here, so plan accordingly.
If you want to go truly primitive at Great Basin, backcountry camping is the perfect option. No fee or permit is required, but registration is strongly encouraged, for your safety. You’ll need to stay ¼ mile off any developed road or site, 100 feet from bodies of water, 500 feet from archaeological sites, and out of a few specific areas. Don’t worry though, there’s still plenty of space for everyone, and you can stay out for up to 14 days.
A number of private RV parks are close to Great Basin NP and a few offer full RV hookups. Options range from quite rustic to casino-style, complete with a few slot machines, beer mugs, and pool tables. In most spots you’ll be able to enjoy WiFi, showers, restrooms, and laundry facilities and can stay handy to number of restaurants. Head west to Ely, NV and you’ll have more options, including campgrounds with pull-through, full-hookup sites, access to hiking and ATV trails, planned activities, dog parks, and kids’ play areas.
Seasonal activities in Great Basin National Park
Jeff Davis Peak
There is some talk of re-naming this mountain, even though Jefferson Davis was not yet President of the Confederacy when the mountain was named for him. Earlier surveys had this mountain as part of the adjacent Wheeler Peak, and it was not until the 1860s that Jeff Davis Peak received its own mountain designation.
This mountain is basically nestled among some much larger ones. The views are not as spectacular, but the hike up is quite nice. On the way, hikers can clearly see Johnson Lake as well as Baker Lake. There are also a few abandoned mine cabins scattered about, giving the trail a nice historical touch.
Baker Archaeological Site
This site contains the ruins of a Fremont Indian village which dates back to about 1250 A.D. The village was quite sophisticated, with several smaller houses surrounding a central building. These people were agricultural. The site also includes several granaries. Visitors may view articles from the ruins, but there are no keepsies. There is a large picnic area at this site, in addition to restrooms, sun shades, and other facilities.
These Caves, which were the first protected area of the Great Basin National Park, are at the base of Wheeler Peak, and they are a highlight of the Park for most visitors. Only tour groups may enter the Caves, and these tours are offered 362 days a year. The shorter Lodge Room Tour is ideal for families with very small children; the longer Grand Palace tour includes a peek of the Parachute Shield rock formation. A number of creatures live in the Caves full-time. Others, like chipmunks and bats, leave the Caves periodically to forage for food.
At just over 13,000 feet high, Wheeler Peak is the tallest mountain in Nevada. RVers can take a paved road from the Park to the mountain. There are a number of small campsites on the face; the highest one is some 7,500 feet in the air. Later spring is the best time to visit Wheeler Peak. There are often sudden rainstorms during the summer, and in the late fall and winter it gets pretty cold. Another cool thing about Wheeler Peak is that it’s the highest mountain for some 200 miles. So, the closer you get to the top, the better the views get. To reach the top, park your RV on the scenic drive and then ascend the Wheeler Peak Summit Trail. It’s a Class 1 trail (designed for pedestrians; hiking boots are optional). Ask a ranger about the legend of Prometheus.
Alpine Lakes Loop
This hiking trail is a pretty steady uphill climb, but the views are certainly worth the effort. It includes Stella Lake, Glacier Lake,Teresa Lake, and some other ones. These bodies of water are worth the trip. Even better, the lakes attract all sorts of plant and animal wildlife. Most people run into deer, wild turkey, squirrels, and other small to medium-sized animals.
Before you cast that line, know that the NPS does not sell Nevada fishing licenses. Buy one online or at a local agent. Worms are the only live bait permitted; catch-and-release is “encouraged” but not required. So much for the rules. Now, for the fun stuff. Lehman Creek is a good place for brown and brook trout. A few rainbow trout might end up in your net as well. There are lots of trout in Baker Creek as well. Follow the signs to find the designated fishing points. Baker Lake is the only lake in the Park where there are fish. It’s quite an experience if you are into remote fishing locations. Thick ice covers the lake up to six months a year. The water level is lowest late summer and early fall, making these months prime fishing time. Snake Creek (Bonneville cutthroat trout) will be open in 2019. Strawberry Creek was closed in 2016 due to a forest fire, and there is no re-opening date set.
This glacier-formed lake is one of the highlights of the Alpine Lakes Loop Trail. It’s also one of the highest lakes in the state (11,000-plus feet high), so the fishing is not too good and the water is definitely too cold for swimming. But the scenery makes up for these deficiencies. The lake looks more like a water-filled meteor or volcano crater, and extremely tall pine trees crowd the shoreline.
Many visitors overlook places like Baker Peak in favor of more famous sites like Wheeler Peak. But if you have the time, Baker Peak is a very nice mountain peak that’s in an RV-friendly location. A variety of trails go up to the summit, from Class 2 scrambles to Class 5 rock-climbing approaches; the more challenging trails are mostly on the sheer north face. Once at the top, visitors may see Wheeler Peak as well as a number of other mountains. That’s something of a rarity in the rugged Great Basin range.
Like many parts of the Great Basin, Mount Washington was once a mining claim. Back in the day, silver was pretty much everything in Nevada. When the mines dried up, there was talk that California might annex Nevada. Several hiking trails go up to the summit.
This is another cool little trail that branches off the Wheeler Overlook. During the 1880s gold rush, a mining company built this ditch to carry water from some nearby streams and rivers to the gold deposits nearby. But after some fifteen years, the company ceased operations, as the mining was simply too difficult. Depending on your perspective, that story is either a great lesson about persistency or a cautionary tale about the futility of fighting nature.
Bristlecone Pine Trail
These trees are truly incredible living things, and hiking this trail may be the best way to see them up close. It’s hard for anything to survive high in the Great Basin. The winters are long, cold, and windy. However, if you can make it through a year here, you can probably make it through pretty much anything. That may explain why these trees have been around for so long. Also, because they grow so slowly, these trees are very dense and highly resistant to insects. Bear in mind that everything in a National Park is protected. That includes bristlecone pines on the ground.
Sky Islands Forest Trail
Why is a hiking trail that’s less than a mile long (round trip) on this list? Because it is almost as flat as a table, making it ideal for families with small kids or people with mobility impairments. Everyone should get to experience this Park. The trail itself is a relaxing, meandering walk through a conifer forest. There may be better ways to spend a fall afternoon, but we cannot think of one offhand. This trail is directly off the Wheeler Peak Overlook.
This is a great place to see almost the entire Park. Viewing is best in the crisp fall air, but go early in the season. If there is an early snowfall, part of the road may be closed. It’s a very nice road as well. It is wide and there is plenty of parking near the Overlook. There’s also a very nice viewing area which includes a telescope.
Wheeler Park Overlook
Because it is a mountain road, the grade is a little steep and vehicles over 24 feet long are prohibited on some portions. But it is quite a view of the diverse landscape. Some people say it is almost like driving from Nevada to the Yukon. Some highlights include:
- Sagebrush seas (if you drive the Overlook right after a rain shower, you will probably smell the sagebrush as well)
- Pinyon pine trees stands
- Mahogany forests, many of which were cleared by miners
The types of trees change the higher you go. Along the way, there are lots of parking areas that are adjacent to hiking trails.
Snowshoeing & Skiing
Many trails remain open through the winter, even though the snow is very deep and the temperatures can get quite cold. Some of the more popular ones are:
- Wheeler Peak/Jeff Davis Peak
- Grey Cliffs trail
- Timber Creek/Pole Canyon
- Lehman Creek
Visitors must bring their own skis. Snowshoes are available for rent at the Lehman Caves Visitors’ Center. Check with park rangers about the snowfall. Sometimes, it is powdery and good for skiing; other times, it is dense and good for snowshoeing.
Snake Creek Road
One of the few roads that’s open all year, Snake Creek Road is also quite scenic. It ends just short of Pyramid Peak in the central part of the Park. Part of the road is rather straight. But the higher travelers go into the mountains, the windier the road gets. No RVs are allowed as you will need a high-clearance vehicle to navigate this road.
Low humidity, high elevation, and zero light pollution make Great Basin one of the best places in the world for astronomy. On a dark, clear winter night, guests can simply look up and see thousands of stars, star clusters, meteors, the Andromeda Galaxy, five of the solar system’s eight planets, man-made satellites, and the Milky Way. There are a number of astronomy-related events at the Park as well. We recommend the annual Astronomy Festival, where visitors can use more than two dozen types of telescopes. Always dress in layers for these events, because evenings get quite cold.
About three thousand years ago, the Fremont Indians drew abstract pictures on rock formations inside caves. No one is sure who these individuals were, why they left these drawings, or what they are supposed to represent. We do know that these caves were more than just art galleries. Researchers have found charcoal, stone tool fragments, and many other artifacts in these caves. These pictures are a rather ghostly sight, and if nothing else, their indoor location offers a respite from the winter weather.
One of the Great Basin National Park signature rock formations is clearly visible in winter. It’s an impressive circular hole in solid rock, making it a testament to the force of winds over many, many years. Lexington Arch is also one of the largest limestone rock formations in the country.